Health & Fitness

Excessive use of antibiotics harming Kenyan children

Overuse of antibiotics exposes children to diseases like pneumonia. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Due to their low immunity, children are usually vulnerable to diseases.

Whenever they are sick, parents usually get worried and will rush to doctors so as to alleviate their discomfort.

In such instances, it is recommended that health practitioners conduct tests to confirm the cause of infection (such as bacteria, virus or parasites) before drugs are dispensed.

But on many occasions, some just end up prescribing medication without testing, based on symptoms that a child has.

The most abused drugs are antibiotics, which are often prescribed for children presenting with a cold or flu-like symptoms that are mainly caused by viruses and not bacteria.


This habit is exposing children to extremely high quantities of antibiotics, which is detrimental to their health.

It also puts them at risk of complications brought about by antibiotic resistance at a young age and in later life.

A new study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal shows that children in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) like Kenya are receiving an average of 25 antibiotic prescriptions during their first five years of life.


“This is a remarkable estimate, given that two antibiotic prescriptions per year is considered excessive in many high-income settings,” stated the study authors from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH).

Misuse or overuse of the drugs increases the exposure or interaction of bacteria to existing antibiotics.

This makes it easier for the bugs to “study” the drugs and devise ways of resisting their toxic effects.

When this happens, it becomes difficult to use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections such pneumonia and complications caused by food-borne germs.

Therefore, the researchers note that the excessive antibiotic prescriptions could harm the children’s ability to fight disease-causing organisms, while increasing antibiotic resistance worldwide.

The study is the first to look at total antibiotic prescription for children under five in low and middle-income countries.

It provides a more comprehensive picture of paediatric antibiotic exposure, compared to what has been reported previously.

“We knew children in low- and middle-income countries are sick more often. And we knew antibiotic prescription rates are high in many countries. But what we did not know was how these elements translate into actual antibiotic exposure. And the results are rather alarming,” said Günther Fink, the lead author of the study and head of the Household Economics and Health Systems Research at Swiss TPH.

“This number is still high given that the vast majority of infections in this age group are of viral origin,” said Valérie D'Acremont, a study co-author and head of the Management of Fevers group at Swiss TPH.

During the study, the researchers analysed data captured between 2007 and 2017 from health facilities and household surveys in eight countries.

They were Kenya, Haiti, Malawi, Namibia, Nepal, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda.

The study combined both household data on where and when children are brought for medical care, with data from direct observations of health workers caring for sick children.

Results showed that in 81 percent, 50 percent and 28 percent of the cases, antibiotics were prescribed for children with a respiratory illness, diarrhoea and malaria respectively.

Antibiotic resistance is one of today's biggest threats to global health and development.

According to the World Health Organisation, one factor contributing to this global health threat is the excessive use of antibiotics.

Yet, a majority of children who visit health facilities in low and middle-income countries still receive an antibiotic for ailments that do not require the drug. The treatment is reserved for bacterial infections.

“Understanding the concrete impact on individual children is crucial to achieve a policy change,” said Fink.

To avert antibiotic resistance in children, health experts note that clinicians should refrain from prescribing the drugs before necessary diagnostic tests are conducted to determine the cause of a disease.

“If your child needs antibiotics, always give them the full dose that is prescribed, even if they feel better before the antibiotics are finished.”

Ensuring children are immunised against major childhood diseases that have vaccines is also important.

This will avert targeted bacterial infections, hence minimising the use of antibiotics or preventing their uptake.